Most people don’t really understand what the body needs in order to perform sports activities. Due to the many fads out there in the market, it is easy to lose focus.
Fueling the body properly is vital in any sport but knowing how and when to fuel as well as how much, takes some know-how and practice.
Your muscles use energy all day even when you are just sitting around. When you increase your physical activity, you use more energy. The more intense the physical exertion the more energy is used. Your energy comes from food that contains carbohydrates (carb). Anything starchy (rice, noodles, pasta) or sweet contains carbs. There are simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are found mainly in fruits, milk and anything that has sugar as an ingredient. Complex carbs can be found in grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like corn, peas and potatoes. Your body converts carbs into glucose which travels through your bloodstream providing energy throughout your body.
Your muscles usually store small amounts of energy resource in the form of glycogen. When you run out of glycogen after some physical activity, you will feel fatigue and tired. The more muscles you build the more glycogen is stored and more energy is used. This is why you may feel the desire to eat more than usual as you exercise more often.
Planning your meals before exercise is important so that you don’t run out of energy too soon. To do this, you first have to know how much energy you will need and for how long. It is generally advised to have a small meal one to two hours before exercising, giving your body time to digest and process the food into energy. You should never go into a workout session on an empty stomach; neither should you eat until you are so full that you end up feeling bloated or nauseous during a workout. The more you eat the longer it takes for the food to digest. This meal is meant to fuel your muscles and therefore should mainly consist of carbohydrates for that very purpose. A small bowl of rice or noodles, some bread or fruit would do the trick. Reduce on proteins and fats as both take a longer time to process and generally do not provide sufficient energy boost.
Sports like badminton, squash and tennis require short burst of energy. The same goes for resistance workout and bench pressing. Your muscles would work for brief periods only and you have the time to rest before repeating the process. During the rests, you have time to grab an energy drink for an instant fuel supply should you require it. Fueling for activities like running or cycling for 30 to 60 minutes is pretty much the same. On the other hand, long distance running, cycling and any other form of endurance activities that extends up to several hours without opportunity to rest, require a prolong and continuous supply of energy. In such activities, it is not convenient to carry along that much energy drink and energy gel packs can only do so much. In a half-marathon (about 21 km), the average runner will run for nearly two hours. So what do marathoners, triathletes and ultra-marathoners do for energy? They carb-load.
Carb-loading (or carbohydrate-loading) is a strategy used to increase the amount of fuel stored in your muscles to improve athletic performance for endurance sport. Basically, the athlete eats more than the usual amount of carbohydrate for 2 to 3 days working up to a race. The carb is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver becoming the most easily accessible source of energy. For this to work, a diet of complex carbohydrate is required and the most common of this is pasta. You can also take oatmeal, bread, pancakes, bagels, fruits and any other source of complex carbohydrates.
Originally developed in the late 1960’s, carb-loading typically involved two phases. The result was a boost in glycogen storage beyond the usual levels. This technique starts with a depletion phase where the athlete would go through 3 to 4 days of hard training and a low carbohydrate diet. This depletion phase was thought to be necessary to stimulate the enzyme glycogen synthase. This was then followed immediately by a 3-4 day ‘loading phase’ involving much lower training time combined with a high carbohydrate diet. The combination of the two phases was shown to boost glycogen storage beyond their usual levels. Sports nutritionist Ilana Katz, R.D. says that it is common to see at least four pounds increase in body weight when you carb-load. “With every gram of stored carbohydrate, you store an extra three grams of water,” says Katz. This means that you will also be hydrated as you fuel up.
Carb-loading will not make you run or cycle any faster. There is no increase in efficiency nor skill. Carb-loading merely gives you that extra energy supply when you are working your muscles over a prolonged period. An endurance athlete who does not carb-load may hit “the wall”. Hitting “the wall” means that your body has run out of fuel and its reserves; and is starting to convert fat into energy, however, it takes the body more effort to convert fat into fuel. When this happens, your body starts to feel weak and unresponsive; you may even lose focus.
So, plan your “fueling” meals according to your activities. Getting this right will give you just the right boost of energy. Have a small carbohydrate meal a couple of hours before a regular workout or sport; and work out a one week carb-loading meal plan for an endurance workout or race that’s going to take several hours.